I did a Gap Analysis and found out what the world was missing: ME

I did a Gap Analysis and found out what the world was missing: me.

I’ve been hiding the treasure of myself from the world. It is exhausting, though, building and maintaining this vault to contain a powerful being.

The vault is made of performative gestures, well-timed nods and comments on the weather. Lots of jell to paste my hair together— hiding in plain sight. I could write a How-to book: how to disappear and never be seen again.

But that’s not the book I will write. I will write about how to appear and be seen forever, once I find out how to.

The world is missing me. And somewhere, deep in the vault, I am always trying to get out. One piece of hair just won’t stay in place. Or I bring sardines to lunch and eat them out of the can and feel threatened by the critical looks in the office at lunchtime. These looks, that second glance, it is so quick yet it sets off the alerts of the vault: security breach! Alert! Tomorrow it’s back to lunchmeat sandwiches like the rest. Disappear completely.

I get home to my studio apartment. I close the door, put down my bag, and slide down to lay one the floor. Exhausted. Now, I can be myself, but I am too tired. I get a whole carrot and eat it while laying on the floor, playing cloud-shape games with the shapes of water stains on the ceiling–is it a dog? No, it’s a skull.

It requires constant vigilance, this movable vault. I’ve torn my identity into pieces to hold it all together:

  • One part of me must always be the authoritarian, scolding me if I make a mistake.
  • Another part is the face of the operation: the quiet girl that smiles and always says the appropriate thing at the appropriate time– the performer.
  • Another part is the judge– gifted at finding dislikes, quietly judging others at how well they contain their vault (hint: they’re not as good at it).

I have torn myself up to create is a troupe of protectors that pop up when I need them.

But what about me? Deep in the vault there is a curious, funny, goofball who likes to eat popcorn in soup and troll the internet for raccoon memes.

That is what the world is missing! The world is missing random push ups on the office floor to stave off afternoon haze. The world is missing big hair and high-pitched cackling laughs. The world is missing going on a walk around the office building and picking a ripe mango off the tree and eating it, making a mess and staining my work shirt. The world is missing mango stained work shirts in board meetings! The world is missing screaming empty threats at frogs that won’t leave me alone in the shower in the rainy season. The world is missing unflattering photos and my sneaky double-chin!

The world is missing climbing trees on my lunch break with no shoes on to get to that guava at the top. The world is missing stories about chasing an armadillo through the jungle muttering about hepatitis in a sing-song voice.

I did a Gap Analysis and found out what the world was missing. :shushing_face:It’s missing YOU, too. It’s ok to be afraid. Still, tell the vault authoritarian to stand down this once: What treasures are you hiding from the world? :sparkling_heart:

Who knows the real magic? Who knows how to appear and be seen forever? :star2:

Subjective Wealth & Success

One of the first things I did when I moved back home was to visit my dad’s old friend, Mr. Roy Williams. Ever since I could remember, Mr. Roy stood behind the bar at his small saloon drinking and serving beer and soft drinks to anyone who was buying. On the speakers of an aged radio was the constant drawl of old country music and on the walls, paint from decades past peeled away in curling flakes.

Going into Roy’s bar was like a time capsule. In the 16 years I had been away, nothing had changed. The leak above the bar still dripped when it rained hard, the peeling paint, the sad country music; even Roy himself with his plump face, round belly, faded Hawaiian shirt only halfway buttoned and his smiling half moon eyes seemed unchanged by time. It was a comforting place to go after my dad passed away, my mom moved, the highway was built, and so many other things had changed.

I leaned over the counter and ordered a beer, and Roy, an east Indian man in his late 60s, beamed when he saw me and spoke so fast that one word blended into the other, as was his usual way.

“So when you going back?” Roy asked after some time.

“I’m not.” I said. “I moved back home. I live here now.”

The jovial look on his face melted away. His eyes, once pushed into crescents from smiling, rounded.

“Everything okay?” He asked.

I assured him it was, and that I had even found a good job at the cacao processing company up the road.

“You can tell me if you’re in trouble,” he said, still in a sober, fatherly tone. He turned down the country music and I could hear the chickens clucking in the yard, the occasional bark of a dog, and smell the smoke from someone’s fire hearth in the air from cooking lunch.

“ No, it’s not that, I just missed the clean rain and the fresh fruit and the waterfalls and —“

He leaned on the bar looking me in the eye trying to scan for something between my words. There was no one else in the bar.

“People nuh gone da states an’ come back ‘less they have problem. Everyting you want up there why you come back here? Nothing d happen in this village! If you get a chance, you leave.” He paused. “But it look like you wah d try come back so I just wa ask— Wha happen?”

I didn’t know how to respond. There was nothing I could say to convince him that I was not running from anything personal, rather the impersonal blanket of vulgar capitalism and unchecked racism—concepts that although a smart man, after years of unquestioned colonization and isolation any man would find hard to understand.

I was more running TO something rather than from it. But to old Mr. Roy, who has spent the past 45 years standing behind a bar in a rural village in southern Belize, listening to chickens and dogs and country music day in, day out, that concept was a difficult one to explain.

I left the bar, my stomach feeling heavy and my head throbbing. I was suddenly aware be being alone, and completely misunderstood. I was just at the beginning of unveiling the mindset of those around me in my old home, which made me feel even smaller and even more alone.

I have always been attracted to a certain scramble of chaos: The beautiful but broken, the ravaged but joyful. Because, as so well put by Kahlil Gibran, pain carves out room for joy, and so one can only feel joy to the extent that one has felt pain.

I made my decision long ago to choose my own path, to navigate life on my own terms. I made the decision without even realizing it was a decision to be made. I don’t question this any more. Once I owned my choices, it was a lot less agonizing. I was relieved of a shackle of self-doubt.

When I left Detroit and moved to the jungle of Belize to my old home, I wrote something of a manifesto, a mission statement to which I would live by. That was, loosely, to reduce my cost of living so low that I could have access to more freedom and autonomy and cut free of at least some of the grip of the capitalist empire that was cannibalizing its own planet. I could enjoy life doing the things that make me, me instead of spending 80% of my waking adult life pushing for someone else’s agenda.

It all started with a theory I had about the definition of wealth—that access to natural resources subsidizes cost of living in a way that translates to sustainable wealth in the sense of a certain quality of life. To flip the paradigm of “poor rural villager” to “wealthy person emancipated from the chain of modern living and technology or the rat race that constantly makes you feel “not enough.”

I have, over the last 2 years, given a lot of thought to this and studied it closely first hand. I have been and still am, testing this theory. It comes up to a balance of complex paradoxes. Life on earth is hard. There is no escape to that. But how do you want it served to you: On your own terms or at the will of another’s? It involves larger systems, not individuals—because we are cogs in a machine. We can choose not to be as big cogs as some others. We are never alone or fully offshoots. But we can wind it down, limit our consumerism immensely and live a sincere wholehearted life.

So, essentially, that’s what I am going for. Winding down. I had concluded that small farming only works if you wind way down: subsistence farming is the term.

People use subsistence farming as an example of poverty or being “poor”.

But what is poverty? It’s a sensitive question. How many things are we told that we need or made to need after the rain becomes undrinkable and the rivers are poisoned?

Is poverty not having enough resources for a healthy, safe, good life? Food to eat? Place to shelter yourself? Safety? Access to entertainment?

In my view, poverty is being stripped of your natural resources and thus being made reliant on the hand that feeds you, forced into selling minutes, hours, days years, decades of your life in order to survive. But in Southern Belize, the rain is still drinkable, people still build houses out of wild palm leaves, creeks and rivers web and pulse through the forest with fresh, unpolluted water were people bathe, drink and wash their clothes. Chickens and pigs run freely until a wedding or an event calls for their body’s nutrition. And most of all, people have autonomy—a certain self-freedom. Men go to work in the scathing sun and do grueling labor from 7am to noon. Then they go home and lay in the hammock for the rest of the day. It’s a freedom not granted to even the highest earning wage slave. Either way, the life and work is hard. But the difference is autonomy.

I want to write a series of essays that show money is not the answer. My audience would be people caught in the rat race, wondering when they will “make it” and what making it even looks like.

By any stretch of the conventional social climber’s imagination, I have not made it: I live in a 19’x20’ house and I have no appliances like a washing machine, dryer, refrigerator, or oven. I have very limited solar electricity and no running water. Half the time my clothes smell like mold because it rains all the time. On any given night, I wake up to scorpions clicking across the walls.

If I write about redefining success and wealth as it relates to myself and my own goals, what would people learn? What would I learn? Who would care? I need practice. What questions am I seeking to ask and/or answer?

People do ask me a lot of questions: they ask why I decided to move back to rural Belize and live in the bush, off the grid: Was it hard? How did I do it? Did I feel like I made the right choice?

In a series, it will show that living your own myth is a way to build a different kind of wealth. Your own is one hardest paths to follow; It means rigorous questioning of yourself and the surrounding world to the point of exhaustion, reaching into thin air for answers that, ultimately, you must mine from within. Nothing is pre-cut or laid out. Every infinitesimal gesture is pure work.

It is terrifying and painful and it is often lonely. But it is equally rewarding and through pain is the deliverance of deep pools of joy. As mentioned before, life is a constant balance: Happiness is pain, bad is good, love is hate—just different ends of the same spectrum, one unable to exist without the other.IMG_0134

Runaway-Chapter II

The air hung thick and still, an invisible curtain between the world and me. Voices from pickers in nearby rows looped in and out: laughter, cussing, echoes of a life I used to live before I realized I was trapped in a nowhere town full of rusty machines, drowsy streets, and haunted by the smell of livestock.

Endless flats of peaches, red and orange in the sun, sat like two-toned marbles waiting to be scattered. I wanted to overturn all the crates and then whip Jacques to the ground.

The farm truck chugged up. Mason backed in to hitch up the trailer and cart it off to the packing plant. Then I saw it: Mason was wearing my missing long sleeve shirt.

A lightness fizzed in my blood. I was overcome by a feeling of superpower, of limitless ability. What happened next melts into a multicolored blur: I see the farm truck backing up to the trailer full of peaches. Then Mason, a plaid streak, dashing behind the truck and cranking down the trailer hitch; a flash of Jacques stepping backwards, his round eyes bulging.

With a speed and agility I never knew I possessed, I dashed across the row and lunged into the open truck. The keys dangled motionless from the ignition, a still frame lodged in a nauseating rush. Without so much as a slam of the door, I yanked the truck into drive and crashed forward, granite foot to the gas. Rising voices, confused and angry, clamored in the growing distance.

 

My eyes rolled over to the cloudless sky, down the long row, past the ladders and brown-skinned pickers as they flickered by. The truck, a rusted 1996 Ford Bronco, creaked at the ill-connected trailer hitch. It felt like the weight of the peaches was tugging the truck back. For some time I felt like I was moving but getting nowhere, or that the orchard suddenly expanded for miles. The truck hit an uneven patch and rocked violently from side to side slamming the door shut. It began wheezing louder with the growing speed. Just then the gravel driveway, opening like a mouth into the road, jumped out of nowhere. I jerked the steering wheel to the left to follow it. The turn dislodged the hitch on the trailer and the truck veered followed by an awful metallic screech raking over my eardrums.

Before I realized what had happened, the truck kicked forward like its namesake. With the weight of the trailer torn off, the engine power lurched the truck to jump forward so hard it nearly pitched my body through the back of the cab then in the next instant towards the windshield. The bumps and dips of the uneven orchard floor launched Mason’s water jug over the center console towards the back. Loose change ran along the bottom on the cup holders and a loose peach shot from the dashboard to the passenger seat.

I looked in the rearview mirror for the first time. The torque sent the trailer spinning off the truck and onto its side. A warm explosion of peaches blossomed over grass and gravel. I was at the edge of the orchard and Mason, a long-sleeved speck waving his arms like a broken windmill, was running forward as fast as his stiff legs would allow. I couldn’t hear him, but I almost felt the stream of damnation gushing from his lungs.

I turned the wheel, this time to the right, and zoomed out onto the rolling country road that ran through Otton like an artery.

It was Semwick Road; the road Mason told me Mother died on in a car crash. I was four. I don’t remember much about her except what Mason told me and the little, random clips that sometimes flashed into my mind. For instance, I remember her hands. Long fingers, dark skin, soft. I thought about that a lot. No one I knew had soft hands except the guy Mason invited over around come tax season.

My mother’s name was Philipa and she was from Jamaica. She worked as a farm hand until she and Mason got married. I’d wrestled that much out of him. She was the only topic that was off limits, aside from new farm equipment. I’d bring her up and he’d damn near hurl something at me. How she ended up in Otton is a mystery to me. How she ended up with Mason must just be tougher than the mystery of life.

The scene I saw in the rearview is an image I’d store in my head forever: the scramble of peaches, the splintered creates, the wooden trailer leaning broken and helpless on its side. At the time it seemed surreal, like it was happening to someone else. It never occurred to me to stop or to turn back. I felt I could go anywhere. A primal part of my brain told me to keep moving, and fast, toward the expressway.

The town was a four-mile stretch and it was even longer to the nearest interstate. Four miles of Otton, four miles of Mason, of familiar faces and mailboxes, welcome mats and tractors; four miles, too, of local police.

The peach-inflicted burning was now a distant throb behind a roar in my head and slushiness in my stomach. As I drove, I saw plumes of dust billowing from the grain fields in harvest; amber clouds rising from combines back ends. I could smell the seasonal sweetness in the air like fresh-cut grass. The whirr of farm equipment buzzed by; Cornfields fanned out before me, each row ticking past like the second hand on a watch. I couldn’t outdrive them; they seemed to run tirelessly alongside the truck.

The closer I got to the highway, the traffic thickened and at the sight of a state trooper two cars ahead I started sweating to the point were I had to blink the salty stuff out of my eyes. Heat waves tadpoled upward from the road, rhythmic wiggles of the air. I inched forward until the traffic had me hovering right up behind the state trooper. In a nervous flare my eyes started dashing about. How fast would Mason call me in? How long would it take this trooper to find out I was committing grand theft auto? The trooper turned her head towards me. She was a frowning woman with small eyes. For a flash, our eyes met. I quickly looked at the passenger seat.

She knows, I thought. The lonely peach resting on the seat suddenly became interesting. I noticed there was a scar on it scabbed over with a clear dried sap. We never got every worm with the pesticide.

I stared at that peach until a blast from a truck’s horn made me look up. The traffic had moved on, more than a football field ahead.

 

Local Hardware

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There’s a hardware store conveniently situated on the road heading out of town. Every Saturday on the way to the farm, the contractor usually asks to stop there to pick up odds and ends. We go in and are greeted with a nod by the bored clerk, a young man leaning on the counter and scrolling on his smart phone. He stands up as we draw near.

The contractor asks him for something common and mundane, like a pound of 3-inch nails, or a steel brush.

And, without fail, the young man’s eyes open wide so that you can see the whites around his eyeballs. “Bwoi!!!” He booms loudly as if we’ve asked for something bizarre, like moon rocks. “Bwoi!” He repeats at a slightly lower volume, and then starts shaking his head and mutters, “Well, I no know if we have DAT!”

To that I usually say, “Well, can you look?”

“Right now,” he says, and shuffles off somewhere to the back of the store.

Without fail, he comes back with the requested item. “Da dis u d look fa?”

And we agree that, yes, that is what we had been looking for, and take it. A week later, it’s the same routine. WITHOUT FAIL. I’m not complaining, I just find this incredibly amusing. Like, why does he act so alarmed when we ask for hardware at a hardware store?

Beginnings

I landed in Belize in the afternoon, a half hour earlier than scheduled. I had plenty of time at the baggage claim and waltzed through customs with a bored nod from the officer who barely looked up from his smartphone.

On the curbside waiting for my ride, I checked Facebook and suddenly was struck by a gripping melancholy. My eyes blurred with a mixture of tears and sweat. It was 96 degrees and so humid it felt like swallowing the air was a source of hydration. Of course, that’s not how things work. When I finally got to my family’s house, I chugged two liters of water gasping for breath in between gulps.

It took two days of rest to recover from the sleepless nights of packing and farewell get-togethers that preceded my departure from Michigan. When I woke up on the second day, I lost no time stuffing my face with mangoes. No picked green and shipped halfway across the world business; just the elbow-dripping sweet-tart goodness you can only get in the tropics. Mango season hadn’t officially started but some trees (especially the hairy common mango) got an early start. Mangos are like tomatoes in that there are so many varieties, it’s hard to keep track.

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The next day I headed into downtown Belize City for a two-day QuickBooks training for my new job.

It was a Tuesday morning and I saw the city coming to life. Kids in their white, pressed school uniforms were shuffling to school; cars rocked in and out of potholes as they traversed the narrow streets, and a haphazard web of power lines zigzagged overhead. Some traditional Mennonite men were walking about in their signature straw hats and hand-sewn blue shirts and suspenders.

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I walked up and down Albert Street looking for my workshop like a kid lost on the first day of school. The new flats I’d bought a half size too small (it seemed like an ok idea at the time) began cutting into the back of my heel. I hadn’t gone far, but by the time I found the class I was limping.

In the following two days, I learned QuickBooks basics while inundated with a delicious variety of food—Belize’s famous Dario’s meat pies, boiled milk cake, Indian butter chicken (makhani)— all sorts of meals that, on the schedule, were listed as snacks.

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When I got home I told my family I wasn’t sure if I was there to learn QuickBooks, to be fattened up for the kill, or both. They assured me that food is a big part of Belizean professional culture especially in trainings and workshops. Until that day, my experience in Belize had been either as a youngster living isolated in the bush or as a visitor escaping the brutal Michigan winters.

By Thursday I found myself standing at the old cacao processing facility on Belize’s old Hershey cacao plantation, one of the sites that I would be managing soon. What was once as 1,200-acre cacao farm owned by Hershey in the early 80s is now in the rehab phase as a new owner acquired the space a few years ago.

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The structure of the old Hershey facility had the eerie feeling of a ghost town—a chocolate research lab abandoned in the 80s with computers to prove it.  An old basketball magazine from the late 90s further instated the time warp as it was the newest thing in the place. As for the farm, much of the cacao there was chopped down in the 90s to make way for the booming citrus industry.

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Today, just 400-acres of those Hershey-planted cacao trees remain on the estate. Even though they are being rehabbed after years of neglect, the acreage is still producing 150,000 pounds of wet cacao beans annually.

It took a while to soak it all in. I had just spent five years working on urban farms that were considered big if they were over an acre. Now, I was high in the mountains with my boss, an energetic and commanding woman who quickly earned my respect, an Agronomist who was so passionate about cacao you could see it in his retinas, the facility manager who was a soft-spoken man with long thick dreadlocks and a braided goatee, and a tall French intern with a blond man-bun from one of the world’s best known fine chocolate makers, Valrhona.

A lush green faded into a milky blue as the mountains rolled out around us on all sides. The familiar scent of fermenting cacao beans hit my nose. Huge drying decks fanned out in every direction, full of fermented beans drying out in the sun. I was led to the fermentation boxes where the company’s agronomist, facility manager and French intern all hovered over a large box of wet beans. The agronomist was deep in industry jargon—putrification, cut tests, surface mold, humidity, pod index, anaerobic—I did my best to keep up.

Like anything, cacao bean processing is a whole art form that determines the quality and flavor of the bean well before any chocolate maker sees the product. Remember, cacao is not chocolate. Chocolate is cacao processed (exquisitely roasted and pulverized) with sugar, or milk, or sometimes other additives.

I spent the day furiously taking notes on cacao processing. There’s a whole science to it that I still haven’t gotten down. But it wasn’t hard to grasp the basics; much of that I’d learned from growing cacao on my farm when I was a kid.

Cacao, which is the seeds of the cacao theobroma tree, is harvested by cutting the pods the from the trees, cracking them open, and extracting the white-filmy seeds. The seeds are them aggregated into fermentation boxes and set on a strict rotation schedule. After six or seven days (depending on the fermentation box size and post-harvest handling), the cacao is spread one layer deep on what are called drying decks (see photo). There they will stay for another one or two weeks depending on the weather, drying out. The drying process is tedious, and just like the fermentation process it determines the quality of the bean.   On rainy days, and with the high temperatures and humidity, the seeds sometime grow what is called surface mold, which is polished off with the friction of repetitive sweeps with a push broom.

After a rigorous lecture from the Agronomist, the Intern eventually sunk a thermometer into the box of wet beans and they covered the seeds with de-spined banana leaves and began the fermentation process for a new batch. Then we went and took a closer look at the drying decks.

The Agronomist performed a cut test to determine the quality of the beans being produced. The cut test is done by cutting 50 beans in half and inspecting the color inside and finding the percentage of good ferments. If they are a purple-ish hue, the beans are under fermented. If they are a dark brown or crumbly, they are over fermented. But if they are a chocolaty brown with deep furrows inside then they are just right. The Agronomist shook his head at the results and explained in many words why he believed that the beans were overall under fermented. So we decided to move from a 6-day fermentation cycle to a 7-8 day cycle.

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The next day we toured the farm and the Agronomist checked on trees marked for clonal selection, that is, trees with good production records that would be good candidates for use in grafting. I learned so much about grafting from the Agronomist, for instance, that grafting is a form of asexual propagation and a method of selecting the best genetic material for production. In grafting, contrary to my prior belief, the rootstock has nothing to do with the characteristics of the scion. The root stock only serves as an anchor for the clone. The clone is genetic material or “budwood” collected from select trees that outperform others. The Agronomist told me that all ruby red grapefruits are clones originating with one mother tree in Florida.

After we left the old Hershey’s plantation, we drove 3 hours south to the southernmost town in Belize, my hometown, Punta Gorda. It was the weekend of the Cacao Festival and my company invited me to probably one of the swankiest events of the year for the sleepy seaside town of PG. That night I had wine and chocolate for dinner.

The next morning at 4:30am, I made a dash to the bus terminal for a 6-hour ride up to the city to retrieve luggage that I had left at my family’s house while I had got an apartment. I returned to PG on Monday (memorial day in the U.S. and commonwealth day here in Belize). I secured an apartment in Punta Gorda at a lovely and quirky art gallery. Very fitting after coming from an artistic community in Detroit. One evening I sat with my landlords, (lifelong Belizeans that were friends with my dad), and we discussed the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. I knew I was home.

As I write this it’s 9PM and I am getting ready for bed. At 6:30am I will take a ride out into some remote Mayan villages to buy wet cacao beans from farmers. I’m enjoying the crickets outside, the banana leaves fluttering in the breeze. I can hear the sea crashing into the rocks at the shoreline. The sea has been rough for three weeks and there is no fish at the market. A well-known fisherman came into our office last week selling baked goods and offering to fix our printer. It took some restraint not to bow in respect for his hustle.